Tony Bennett is an icon of American music alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Known for traditional pop standards, big band, show tunes and jazz, Bennett earned 20 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award and two Primetime Emmy Awards. With more than 50 million records sold worldwide, his legacy is well-established. Sadly, on July 21, 2023, Bennett passed away at the age of 96. Beyond his music, Bennett can also be remembered for his service in the U.S. Army during WWII.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, Bennett grew up in New York during the Great Depression. Listening to the music of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, he started singing at an early age. Although Bennett attended New York’s School of Industrial Art, he dropped out at the age of 16 to help support his family as a copy boy and runner for the Associated Press. Bennett also worked as a singing waiter and participated in amateur singing nights around the city.
In November 1944, three months after his 18th birthday, Bennett was drafted into the Army. He attended training at Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Robertson, Nebraska to serve as a rifleman in the infantry. In January 1945, Bennett was assigned to the 63rd Infantry Division’s 255th Infantry Regiment. The unit suffered heavy casualties during the Battle of the Bulge and Bennett was one of many replacements sent to bulk them back up.
In his 1998 biography, The Good Life, Bennett described the war as “a front-row seat to hell.” In the freezing European winter, he dug foxholes and prayed to be spared as German 88mm artillery rained down on the 255th as they moved across France and into Germany. On March 15, 1945, the 63rd began their attack on the infamous Siegfried Line. By the end of March, they made it across the Rhine River and engaged in intense house-to-house, town-after-town fighting.
Bennett detested the horrible violence of the war. “Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn't gone through one,” he wrote. “It was a nightmare that's permanent. I just said, 'This is not life. This is not life.'” Through the slug across Germany, the 63rd earned seven Presidential Unit Citations and captured over 21,000 enemy troops. From April 24-27, Bennett and other soldiers of the 63rd liberated the Kaufering Concentration Camp, part of the infamous Dachau complex.
After the war ended in Europe, Bennett remained in Germany as part of the Allied occupying force. He was assigned to an informal band unit that performed for their fellow troops. However, after dining with a black friend from New York (a practice that was not allowed in the racially segregated Army), Bennett was demoted and reassigned to graves registration duty. In 1946, he was honorably discharged and finally returned home to New York. Using his G.I. Bill, Bennett resumed his musical career and studied at the American Theatre Wing. In 1949, his talent was recognized by Pearl Bailey and Bob Hope. The next year, Bennett signed with Columbia Records and the rest is history.
Feature image: Tony Bennett